Ofwat has published its survey on consumer finances during the pandemic, showing a decline in mental health correlated with those financially struggling. It found more households were worse off in the past year than previously and many anticipated that to continue in the coming 12 months

Ofwat has also set out a number of actions water companies can take to help customers who may be struggling through the pandemic.

The report follows Ofwat’s Listen, Care, Share conversation which took a deep dive into customers’ experiences during the pandemic and the different types of support offered. The conversation included customer research and events, bringing together water companies with CCW, charities and other partners.

The report sets out some of the challenges water customers are facing and suggests areas in which water companies could consider change – focussing on eight ways to achieve change and help companies build meaningful, trusted relationships with customers, based on an understanding of their needs.

  • Increase visibility of support -Customer awareness of support available from water companies is low. Support needs to be clearly promoted and well signposted across different channels.
  • Be proactive: look for those who are struggling - Contacting customers early is a way to avoid debt building up. Companies can look for signs of behaviour change such as missing payments.
  • Communicate in a way that people understand and that is empathetic- Making messaging consistent and simple will improve customer understanding. This includes using plain English and avoiding jargon or terms that customers are not familiar with.
  • Accessing support: keep it simple – Some of Ofwat’s research findings show that those struggling with mental health can find it difficult to ask for support with bills. Reducing practical hurdles, including needing to print out forms, and delays in finding out whether support would be provided is vital.
  • Customer journey: tailoring interactions - asking customers receiving support how often they want to hear from the company, or checking in with customers before support comes to an end.
  • Partnerships: work with others to provide support – Directing customers to agencies who can help them manage their finances.
  • Make better use of data: – Reviewing data that is collected and using it to help water companies understand more about those who are receiving or missing out on support.
  • Share: tell others about what works – Share what works, so all customers benefit

David Black, Interim Chief Executive Officer said “Our ‘Listen, Care, Share’ conversation has allowed us to really understand what customers have been going through and continue to endure as a result of the pandemic. There have been some great examples of the industry stepping up to help customers, particularly those who are vulnerable. But we know that some customers are not getting the right help at times when they need it the most.”

“We’d like to see companies providing effective support, compassionate treatment and clear advice to customers at this time. There is an opportunity for the sector to learn lessons from each other and take steps to drive up the standard of support to those unable to pay their bills and ease the financial burden on households.”

Emma Clancy, Chief Executive of CCW, said “This report provides important insights on consumers’ experiences of the pandemic and reinforces the need for many of the proposed changes set out in our recent affordability review. We now have a golden opportunity not only to help households overcome the difficulties that Covid-19 has compounded but also to build closer relationships between water companies and their customers so they are viewed as a trusted and empathetic source of help. We’re looking forward to working closely with Ofwat and the wider industry to remove the barriers to support.”